US Play Coalition Announces 2020 YLI’s Youth Development Practitioner Award Winner

The U.S. Play Coalition and Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute are proud to announce the 2020  Youth Development Practitioner Award Winner:

Jessica Hentoff, Artistic & Executive Director of Circus Harmony in St. Louis, Missouri.

First awarded in 2017, the Youth Learning Institute’s Youth Development Practitioner Award recognizes outstanding performance in the creation and implementation of youth development programs or services.  The evaluation criteria is quite extensive and detailed below.  “There are many deserving practitioners across the nation, and our goal is to bring recognition to this field of service,” said Stephen Lance, executive director of the Youth Learning Institute.


Jessica Hentoff is artistic/executive director of Circus Harmony in St. Louis. Jessica has been teaching and performing circus arts for over 40 years, using circus arts to motivate social change. It is both an arts education and a youth development organization. They believe that circus teaches the art of life- while children are learning circus arts, they are also learning life skills like focus, persistence, teamwork.

Jessica’s remarkable vision and use of circus arts to build character and community has brought about ground-breaking and bridge-building programs such as Circus Salaam Shalom, which brought together Jewish and Muslim children, Far East Meets Midwest, which combined Asian and Midwestern arts and artists and Peace Through Pyramids, which has brought together young people from around the world. These trademarks of Circus Harmony are the embodiment of the organization’s mission to help children “defy gravity, soar with confidence, and leap over social barriers, all at the same time.”

Circus Harmony serves as a model social circus for programs around the world. They were part of a national study by the Weikart Center that found their impact on the development of social and emotional skills exemplary. They believe this is due to the powerful role peer mentoring plays in their program.

Jessica had been named both St. Louis Arts Innovator of the Year and Outstanding Arts Educator of the Year. She was honored to be the first person to receive the American Youth Circus Organization/ American Circus Educators’ Excellence in Circus Education Award. In 2019, Circus Harmony was the recipient of the Missouri Arts Award for Arts Education.

First awarded in 2017, the Youth Development Practitioner Award recognizes outstanding performance in the creation and implementation of youth development programs or services.

Evaluation Criteria includes:

  • Accomplishments serve as an example for other youth serving programs.
  • Program/service demonstrates best practices and a nurturing culture that supports inclusivity and human resilience.
  • Outreach efforts promote youth development programs and encourage support and participation from the community at-large.
  • Equips young people to lead and serve, through direct work with youth and by training other practitioners.
  • Demonstrates positive impact on lives of young people and leads by example.
  • Demonstrates high level of leadership, professionalism and integrity in the field of youth development.
  • Strengthens the field of youth work by providing quality training opportunities for youth workers to maximize their investment in young people.
  • Focuses on attempts to improve the quality of youth services by providing training standards and improving program function.
  • Shares best practices with other youth practitioners or serves as a liaison in the community to create a network of participation and sharing of ideas/knowledge.
  • Program/service demonstrates exceptional commitment to public service and/or educational leadership.

Founded in 2009, the U.S. Play Coalition is an international network of individuals and organizations that promote the value of play throughout life. The coalition is housed in Clemson University’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management department, part of the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences.  Our membership comes from a cross-section of industries and professions – play researchers, educators, park and recreation professionals, health scientists, architects, landscape architects, designers, planners, business and community leaders, psychologists, physicians, parents and more.  Learn more at